Whether making the short drive up from Essex county or coming down from more northern parts of Ontario, taking a trip to Chatham-Kent (C-K) between May and September will bring you here in the midst of festival season, when there are a variety of events to appeal to many tastes. The season generally kicks off with RetroFest in late May. Chatham lives up to its name of Classic Car Capital of Canada; visitors can walk the main downtown drag to encounter hundreds of classic cars, and a few Elvis impersonators, during this weekend-long auto show. FireFest (September 17) continues the interest for vehicle enthusiasts by showcasing vintage and modern fire trucks along the same downtown strip.
Highlighting the area’s rich agricultural history, other events revolve around food and drink. Grapes to Glass (June 18), C-K’s first wine festival at The Kent 1874 Event Centre, celebrates regional wines, including some of Early Acres Estate Winery’s reds, whites, and blushes which have collectively garnered eighteen awards for the winery since opening in 2012. Located just outside Chatham, Early Acres holds monthly summer events, such as Rocking the Vines (July 17), with local entertainment on its country estate.
Ribfest (July 8-10) in Tecumseh Park attracts rib vendors, including Chatham’s own Blazin’ BBQ Ribhouse, winner of numerous awards from the BBQ circuit. If farm-to-table food appeals, C-K Table, organized by a collective of farmers, is becoming a brand name in the area showcasing local food in a variety of community events. This year began with C-K Table Junior in May. In collaboration with C-K chefs, a Grade 3/4 class created a locally-sourced meal for diners, including a gardening project to grow the vegetables. The C-K Table events are always evolving and this year a recurring program called Farmer for a Day is being introduced. This weekend travel package is an opportunity for city slickers to work alongside farmers to learn about vegetable growing, grain production, or livestock husbandry.
If you extend your visit into more than a day trip, Retro Suites Hotel at the corner of King and William Street is the place you want to spend the night. Even if this is your only stop in Chatham, spending a night here is worth it for the architecture and décor alone. This boutique hotel, with 52 individually-themed suites, was honoured with TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Award in the Best Hotels section in all of Canada in 2015.
When dinner rolls around, here are a few downtown hot spots. On the street level of Retro Suites, with an atmosphere matching the hotel, The Chilled Cork is a funky restaurant where Chef Leona Williamson cranks out exquisite contemporary dishes from the kitchen. A short walk down King Street, Mamma Maria’s Ristorante has become the area’s best Italian experience. The old world ambience feels as Italian as the food tastes.
Beyond the downtown core, Spice & Curry located on Kiel Drive, is the city’s best-kept secret. It’s run by business partners Shelly Sakhuja and Chef Gurmeet Singh. Chef cheerfully toils in the kitchen sending out the aroma of simmering sauces
with spices roasted and ground from scratch. Shelly works the front of house, pleasantly greeting and seating guests and delivering steaming bowls of curry and baskets of still-warn Naan bread. You cannot go wrong with any menu options, especially the Tikka Masala and Madras dishes, which Chef will adjust to your preferred heat level. Must-tries for appetizers are the onion pakoras and the garlic cauliflower.
If you have checked into a room, a nightcap at Sam’s Percolator might be in order. This is a downtown coffee shop by day and craft beer bar by night, with a revolving selection of canned beer from places like Collective Arts Brewing in Hamilton and Sawdust City Brewing Co. of Gravenhurst. If some late night nibbles are in order, Frendz Restaurant & Lounge has a menu with an international mix of food — Spanish paella, Cuban sandwiches, Asian stir-fries, Mexican nachos, Indian samosas. For a twist on a Canadian standby, try the tasty poutine with truffle oil and Asiago gravy. Both the bar and patio overlook King Street so you can enjoy the scenery while pairing your food with a full drink menu, including Ontario beers on tap like Iron Spike.
For a relaxing, morning espresso in a coffee shop with fireplaces and exposed brick walls, visit William Street Café, which has been a classic fixture next to Retro Suites for years. After that, a short drive to Chatham’s Breakfast House & Grille on Grand Ave. is in order for breakfast favourites, including frittatas, paninis, and several unique takes on Eggs Benedict. For a few quick lunch options later, Hungry Sam’s (located inside Sam’s Percolator) serves a rotating menu of lunchtime favourites, like a Montreal Smoked Meat Sandwich and Cream of Asparagus Soup. The menu is posted on social media daily to draw in followers with its tasty offerings. For a fresh and healthy take on fast food, Eat What’s Good on St. Clair Street, just a jog over the Thames River bridge going out of downtown, has a completely vegan, gluten-free, and locally-sourced menu. With weekly deliveries of fresh produce from River Bell Market Garden in Dresden, owners Emily Meko and Russell Colebrook creatively use produce from the farm throughout the year. They offer a delicious sweet and herbal Basil Cheesecake with local basil and spinach, and use sweet potatoes in the Ultimate Taco Salad.
Once you have attended a festival or enjoyed the food of a few restaurants, you may want to see what else the area has to offer. A map of the municipality will help you navigate the county roads to find the smaller centres of C-K. Most notable would be a trip to Dresden, twenty minutes north of Chatham, where you can take in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as part of the African Canadian Heritage Tour that commemorates the role of the Underground Railroad in the slavery freedom movement. Here you can also visit the area’s only certified organic farm, River Bell Market Garden, for the unique experience of strolling through the fields and greenhouses that yield over 30 types of fruits and vegetables available in the on-farm market.
Continuing on the agri-tourism route, Parks Blueberries on Highway 2 lets you turn farm work into fun by partaking in thepick-your-own option on 50 acres of fields. Aside from freshly-picked blueberries, the country store is full of preserves, kitchen supplies, and handcrafts. You will also want to sample the blueberry-filled baked goods.
Heading south of Chatham, you could find yourself in the middle of a cherry spitting contest at Blenheim’s Cherry Festival (July 16-17). Taking that southbound drive further, you will reach the fishing village of Erieau where Bayside Brew Pub provides craft beer and wood-fired pizzas in a perfect setting overlooking Lake Erie. The pizzas are the crowd favourite with names like Erieau Heat Wave (spicy chorizo, chillies, and Kalamata olives) and Long Pond BBQ (pulled pork, roasted red peppers, and caramelized onions). Bayside also throws a twist on other pub food like Chicken Wings from the Fire, and Beer Battered Onion Rings.
This is a mere taste of what C-K offers and, if you can’t fit all this in to one trip, fear not, because there is plenty more to explore your next time through.
Author’s Note: Some of the festivals have passed by time of publishing, but they are typically recurring events every summer during the indicated months.
Based out of Chatham, Darin Cook is a freelance writer and regular contributor to eatdrink.